Some days, I feel like a feminist future has never been so close at hand.
Female foreign ministers gathered for the first time ever in Montreal this September to find common ground and advance women’s rights. Moreover, Canada has taken strong leadership to promote women’s rights in the poorest corners of the world, including recently announcing the creation of an ambassadorship for Women, Peace and Security.
Despite huge progress made, I can’t fully rejoice while so many women across the world continue to face impossible choices every day. Women still have to choose whether to sell their daughter into early marriage to feed the rest of their starving children, or whether to risk being raped to use a toilet outside the refugee camp. Too many of these situations are the result of women not having the chance to input to decisions that affect their lives and communities. But I know this can be different.
Right now, the gap between the lives of women in places like Canada, and the lives of women displaced by conflict, is greater than ever – and it’s growing. In fact, while conflicts between countries have declined, civil wars are on the rise. In 2017, civil wars were the main driver behind most of the humanitarian crises in the world. And, while everyone suffers during these humanitarian disasters, women face unique challenges and risks.
During crises, women are more at risk of rape, sexual exploitation, trafficking, early marriage and other forms of gender-based violence. In Yemen, for example, a staggering 2.6 million women and girls are at risk of gender-based violence, including sexual violence. That’s a 63 per cent increase since civil war broke out in the country four years ago. In Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh, Oxfam research revealed that a third of women refugees feel unsafe using the toilets there – many of them going hungry and thirsty to avoid needing the bathroom and suffering abdominal pain and infections as a result.
Despite these unique challenges, every day, women keep life going in the midst of war by educating, mediating and advocating. Women like Noor, who fled the war in Syria with her handicapped husband and two young children. She overcame the many difficulties of being a woman and a mother living in limbo, to set up a school in her home for refugee children. And women like Revo, who cleans the toilets in her refugee camp out of love and the desire to keep a clean space for her community.
Through my work with Oxfam Canada, I have met many women forced to flee their homes. I have seen firsthand that when their voices, leadership, and needs are prioritized, whole nations benefit for many generations to come.
What women know matters. The humanitarian system needs to #askher input.
As humanitarian actors, we must move towards supporting women displaced by conflict to be both protected and powerful. This means putting women in the driver’s seat, for everything from deciding where to put the toilet in a refugee camp, to playing a leadership role in peace talks for the future of a nation. We need to turn the humanitarian system on its head and make sure local and national organizations are engaged in emergency response. But we cannot do it alone.
Canada has a role to play in pushing other governments and setting a global example on how to tackle gender inequality before, during and after conflicts. We know that gender equality is the best predictor of a country’s peacefulness – more so than its level of democracy, its level of wealth or its ethnic and religious makeup. Investing in women’s rights is not only an issue of equality – it is an issue of peace and stability.
What women know matters. They need aid that listens.
Aid that listens is aid that recognizes the inherent value and power in women’s feedback and engagement in how programs and projects are delivered. It is aid that makes sure women have a seat at the table. It is aid that challenges gender norms like the division of unpaid care work, and the responsibilities that are assumed of women worldwide just because of the sex they were born into.
Together, we are in position to make a real difference, and the time is now. Millions of women affected by conflict around the world are counting on it.
Put your voice behind this movement – sign our petition to show Canada that you believe we should further invest in aid that listens. Because what she knows matters.